I have no quarrel with the belief that God doesn’t exist. It is simply a belief, for of course both the existence and non-existence of God are impossible to prove. However, I do have a quarrel with people who are adamant that the only 'intelligent’, ‘progressive’ and ‘rational’ option is a conviction of the non-existence of God. They seem to share an intransigence bearing echoes of religious fundamentalists, who are just as convinced that the existence of God, a matter not capable of proof, has to be insisted on and thrust down dissident throats. And the idea that the non-existence of God is the only intelligent option is seriously flawed.
I am talking of God, not religion. Let us not confuse the two. There are religions, like versions of Buddhism, with no ready concept of God. And there is a long tradition of very religious people – Hindus, Christians, Muslims etc – who have strongly critiqued dominant versions of their own religions as having betrayed humanity and God. The mystical tradition in almost every world religion draws strength from a critique of that religion by ‘believers’ who could see the difference between religion, as a socio-political structure of power, and God, as a conceptual experience.
To equate God and religion is to commit an intellectual error, and one that betrays a rather fleeting acquaintance with history. However, religions do employ ‘God’ to justify their precepts and power. Even here though, the idea that “religion kills” seems to be a bit unfair to long complex traditions that, while used for many devious purposes, have also served good and even ‘progressive’ ends. Take European Christianity, for instance: in the centuries when parts of ‘modern’ Europe were being built on the wealth of slave-holding and related conquests and plantations, Christianity was used to justify slavery. No doubt. But it was also employed to fight slavery. The fact is that religions, like any complex human construct (such as ‘science’), can be and have been used for good as well as for evil.
Thanks to the rise of stupider versions of religiousity in recent years, there has been a corresponding rise in books and articles putting forth the atheistic perspective. This is a welcome development, for, traditionally, atheists have been liable to be misquoted and suppressed. Welcome though the rise of ‘bestsellers’ on atheism might be from this historical perspective, many of the books and articles do seem to be a bit hard on poor God. As an atheist, I believe that there is a need to defend the concept of God: give the devil his due.
Recent atheistic treatises have correctly pointed out that religions, using God as an excuse, have committed and continue to commit many evils, and that they are seldom likely to fully tolerate those who refuse to believe. It is also true (as the champion ‘atheist’ Christopher Hitchens astutely notes and as religious mystics like Rumi and Kabir, born in medieval Afghanistan and India respectively, sang) that the claim of the religious to know the ‘mind of God’ is preposterous. One can argue, and mystics have often had this complaint against established religion, that God can only be a personal matter: any rule attributed to God, any claim to speak on behalf of God is not only absurd, as Hitchens would put it, but the greatest ‘blasphemy against God’, as some religious mystics of the past have suggested across Asia and Europe.
But these, and similar, bits of criticism do not come to grips with God: they either deal with religion, or deal with God in the reduced sense in which religious fundamentalists use the concept. It is not surprising that religious fundamentalists reduce God: they might talk of kingdoms in Heaven, but they are finally involved in a bid for dominance in this world. Given their experiences with their own mystics, they know that a complex concept of God is useless as a weapon for hegemonic influence.
Moderate, ‘secular’ believers in religion undertake other types of reduction too, the most common being the one that Hitchens rightly scoffs. These moderate believers suggest that the concept of God and religion are necessary for comfort, even though they may not be 'true'. In some societies, with a significant gap between ruled and rulers, it is also suggested that while cultivated people can live without God, the hoi polloi need God in order to survive, have morals etc. But, of course, religion is not the same as morality, and I agree with Richard Dawkins, Hitchens etc. when they note that the religious can be just as ‘immoral’ as the non-religious. It is also true that sometimes atheists have a very highly-developed sense of ethics and morality, for it is not based on fear, repression and custom and it does not, ideally, come with the dangerous feeling of being divinely privileged.
And yet, the notion of God is not exhausted by these arguments. Actually, I will go further and suggest that whether one believes in God or not, one has to engage with the concept of God. No, not because one has to ‘know one’s traditions and/or past’, for that is at best a weak argument. One has to engage with ‘God’ because one cannot get rid of the issues resolved within the concept even if one truly and wholly has no belief in God.
Yes, as Hitchens notes, man made God. And yet, ‘man’ cannot abandon God. Because ‘God’ is shorthand for a relationship that humans have with each other, with themselves and with the world. Within all religious traditions, ‘God’ stands for the index of all that humans cannot be. But he also stands for all that humans are capable of becoming. Put simply, humans are more than ‘beasts’ and humans are not ‘God’. It is this balance that one has to attain – its absence makes some scientists and most religious fundamentalists dangerous.
Tabish Khair is a novelist and an associate professor at the University of Aarhus